As Felix Rodriguez scans the community room at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury his eyes glow with pride. Mounted on the wall and filling several display cases are dozens of boxing items, paintings, autographed photos and other memorabilia related to the iconic American sports figure Muhammed Ali that the Waterbury resident has collected over nearly three decades.
For Rodriguez, who is a Waterbury native, author and member of the city school board, each element in the exhibit, whether it be a comic book, a Broadway poster or an autographed photo of Ali in the ring, rekindles personal memories or a story about the world famous fighter.
At age of 13, Rodriguez, whose parents came from Puerto Rico to Waterbury in 1967, read his first biography of Ali and immediately become a devoted fan. “I read every book about Ali I could get my hands on,” said Rodriguez.
Ali’s best fighting years and most controversial period took place before Rodriguez was born, but still the athlete’s career and convictions was an inspiration to a young man growing up in Waterbury and provided a role model for the Waterbury native, filling some of the void left by an absent father.
Rodriguez first collected books and magazines, eventually building a sizable collection of memorabilia through purchases, gifts and trades. He is a devoted father of a son Jo-Jo, 20, and a daughter Jalissa, 16. He works in the state’s Judicial Branch and also serves as a boxing inspector, working with the state police to oversee matches in Connecticut.
At the Waterbury museum, what immediately attracts visitors is a bright red 1960s-era fight robe Rodriguez purchased from the United Kingdom and a mounted screen that steadily shows videos of Ali’s career. But what is essentially the heart of the collection is a book in a glass case at the far end of the room.
This book, “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest” by John Hennessey, published in 1991, is opened to reveal a photograph of a young Ali that contains a special autograph. Ali had signed this page “Cassius Clay,” his birth name under which he became heavyweight champion of the world and then rejected in 1964 when he embraced Islam and has since rarely used.
The story behind this autograph goes back to 2004, Rodriguez took his then nine-year-old son Jo-Jo to New York City for a “meet and greet” with Ali at the Hue-Man Book Store in Harlem. The attendees were told, Rodriguez recalled, that the retired boxer, already afflicted with Parkinson’s syndrome which makes writing difficult, would not be signing autographs or posing for photos.
However, when Jo-Jo asked Ali to sign his father’s copy of the Hennessey book, the former world champion not only obliged but did so three times, the last using the Cassius Clay inscription.
“I love all my pieces,” Rodriguez said, but if he had to chose, the book Ali signed three times is “my most prized possession.”
That day in Harlem, Ali also posed with Jo-Jo for a picture which Rodriguez would use this image on the cover of the book he wrote a few years later that was published in 2009 under the title “Dad, Me and Muhammad Ali: A Father-and-Son Story.” A second printing two years later used a different cover.
One of the more unusual items on display in the museum gallery is a rusty old plate from a barbell. Rodriquez said he found this weight digging around in the backyard of what had been Ali’s childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky. Rodriguez said he does not know for sure if Ali ever used this weight, who he bought from the current resident, but he does know it came from the place where the boxer grew up.
One wall of the exhibit is dominated by two paintings. One is a watercolor he commissioned from Connecticut artist Cory Pane in 2012. The other was a gift from school children in Morris after he visited their class in 2013 to talk about Ali. Each student contributed a colorful stroke to the painting.
Rodriguez has met Ali four times. He has the former champ’s autograph on several items including a signed Islamic pamphlet. Ali distributed the pamphlets at signings and also donated them to mosques in cities that he visited, Rodriguez said.
Another special item that Rodriguez is sharing with the public is his copy of what he called “the GOAT,” a large coffee-table type book entitled “Greatest Of All Time” that was published in 2000. The book rests open on a table where there also is a set of white gloves so that visitors can turn its pages without soiling the book.
Most of the other smaller objects, such as Ali action figures and a “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” comic book from 1978, are housed in glass cases and easily viewed.
One of the posters on the wall promotes a short-lived 1969 Broadway musical titled “Buck White” that starred Ali. Barred from boxing for three years after his conviction for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, he had to seek other ways than the ring to pay his bills and legal fees.
Some the items on display come with limited special editions. Rodriguez said he always asks for No. 64 of a numbered set in honor of the year Ali became champ and converted to Islam.
Rodriguez corresponds with Ali’s wife Lonnie and while the Ali collection may be his passion, his dream is to have the now 74-year-old sports legend visit Waterbury some day.
Waterbury Collects: The Greatest Muhammad Ali is schedule to run through March 6 The community gallery is located on the third floor and handicapped accessible. Known as the MATT, the museum is located at 144 West Main Street in the center of Waterbury. There is free parking behind the museum on Park Place. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
Admission is free for museum members and for children 16 and under, $7 for adults, $6 for seniors aged 65 and up and for students with a valid college ID. For information, visit mattatuckmuseum.org or call (203) 753-0381.